Museums are collecting coronavirus artifacts to preserve this tragic, unique period in human history

Museums are collecting coronavirus artifacts to preserve this tragic, unique period in human history
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COVID-19 is bound to go down in history books as one of the worst pandemics to have plagued the world. The fact that the disease has caused wide-spread devastation in an age where medical research and technology have advanced exponentially is rather shocking. Although the government has imposed stringent preventive measures and front liners are doing their best to care for victims, there is no guarantee that it will abate, any time soon.

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Meanwhile, historians have begun to collect historical evidence of the pandemic as a record, and as artifacts to teach future generations about a crisis that turned the world upside-down. Museums across the country are jostling to collect keepsakes that will immortalize the pandemic for generations to come. 

New Historical Society, a museum based in Upper West Side, New York is one such cultural institution that is collecting photographs, personal diaries, and other items to develop their 'History Responds' collection about the raging coronavirus epidemic. The museum which was built in 1804 and has a history in social documentation, also previously sought out scraps from 9/11 to build an exhibit which included public signage, firefighter helmets, letters, and more, with the aim of educating the later generations about the tragedy that had the world reeling. 

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Talking to The Guardian, Margi Hofer, the museum director said, "This is a history that everyone will be looking back on. We hope people will be able to learn from it and be better prepared in an event like this in the future. To be better prepared to cope, as well."

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The museum's upcoming coronavirus collection will have objects, photos, and stories, but drawing special focus to health, medicine, household keepsakes, life under quarantine, and even social distancing. They're also attempting to feature public art, community projects, and new product design with regard to the virus. “We started collecting mid-March,” Hofer explained. “We were already alert to what items might be potential for collecting – hand sanitizer, masks, gloves – now evolved to a bigger story than we’ve imagined.”

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The curator of photography at the museum is working in collaboration with street photographers to capture New York City during this time. Furthermore, the library is scouring paper signs that announce business closure and even emailed notices announcing every single business' response to COVID-19 for archival content. 

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, also announced in a press release on April 8, that it has formed a Rapid Response Collecting Task Force that will "allow the museum to react quickly to assess and document the scientific and medical events, as well as the effects and responses in the areas of business, work, politics, and culture."

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Chicago residents have been urged to send in recordings detailing their day-to-day lives during the pandemic, and how it has changed be it drastic or minor by the Chicago History Museum. The museum also framed some prompts on its website that they can answer, which include questions like "Is there anything you will miss when stay-at-home orders lift?" or "What are the moments you won’t forget?"

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Kentucky's Lexington History Museum is curating an exhibit for its new Lexington Pandemic History Project. Foster Ockerman Jr, the museum's director told Kentucky.com: "We’ve been focused so much on exhibits and curating that it snuck up on me that we need to be collecting. Our mission is to tell Lexington’s story of everyone and in every way, and to do that, you have to collect it at the personal level. When it comes time to write the history we’ll have it."

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Ockerman said that people have sent in creatives projects that children made while at home, pictures from grocery stores, and even personal testimonies of how they have been living amid the pandemic. 

Across the pond, in Europe, museums like Victorian & Albert in London are planning to include an exhibit of objects. Corinna Gardner, a senior curator at the museum wrote to Artnet News via email saying,  “Rapid Response is about bringing objects into the museum that through their design articulate the bigger questions of contemporary society. It’s not as much a social history effort."

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The museum is aiming to add several medical products developed as a response to the pandemic, include a snorkeling mask-turned-ventilator mask designed by an Italian 3D printing company, Isinnova. "Our curatorial team is looking to the objects that reach beyond an idea and demonstrate an ability to generate impact and change, that have real traction in the field", Gardner added.

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Universities and museums across Germany have asked people to not dispose of any objects that define their current predicament. Instead, they have been requested to send in photographs of these objects or mail them to the museums. Their aim is to gather evidence from this everyday life during the raging crisis for collective memory. 

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Vienna, Austria-based Wien Museum was among the first museums to attach a worth to testimonies arising from daily accounts of people during the pandemic, for the future. The museum reported that over 1,300 people have responded to them since March 25, sending the institution their take on the pandemic via email tagged under 'Corona memory.'

Rita Wagner, a historian at the Cologne City Museum said she would like to collect as much historical evidence as possible, in order to give the future generation a glimpse of the pandemic that devastated the world. The first object that the museum inventoried is a leaflet that details ways to deal with the virus in the city of Cologne. "We have also been promised two protective face masks worn at the last council meeting in Cologne, by one of the mayors and another council member," Wagner told DW.

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The museum is hoping to expand the collection dedicated to the coronavirus pandemic, in time, she added. 

In Berlin, the German Historical Museum also plans to open a new coronavirus pandemic related chapter in its historical archives. Fritz Backhaus, the head of the museum's collection department said that the museum already has objects that memorialize past pandemics like the plagues but they are mostly medical testimonials that detailed the fight against disease or how the sick were segregated.  

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So museums all around the world are jumping on this bandwagon, to collect as many remnants and souvenirs as possible so the future generations learn of COVID-19's impact on the world. "This is a unique time in our collective history," said University of Arkansas archivist Amy Allen, in a statement. "We feel it is important to document events and stories from our community."

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